The Personalist Project


My Battle Against Hitler

When:Saturday May 30, 8-10pm
Where:519 N High St, West Chester, PA

I ran across an excellent post the other day by Jen Fitz called “The Shame that Breeds Helplessness is Destroying Our Parishes.” It applies to a lot more than the title suggests.

The post addressed the recent Pew survey’s findings about the decline of Christians and the rise of the "Nones" (or religiously unaffiliated), but along the way, Jen makes a much broader point about the person.  She had set out to do an informal poll of a group of parents she knew, to see how many of their children—the 18-to-30-year-olds—still attended weekly Mass. She reasoned that we could all benefit from their experience--sorting through what they were doing right, or not, and how that stacked up against current assumptions about how to reach this age group.

But then she thought better of it because “I knew the parents would be embarrassed." She continues:

We Catholics have a taboo about discussing specific families, or even our specific parish programs, because we don’t want people to feel bad. All parents know that you can do everything right and still end up with children who use their free will all wrong. 

Then comes the really interesting part:

The trouble with the taboo, though, is that statistics don’t have eternal souls. Statistics don’t leave the Church. It’s not a percentage that fails to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ, it’s a person. A person with a name, a person known by God and by us, a person with a story. A person with reasons. …

It seems like Catholics are, almost to a man, terrified of real human beings. We lump people into broad categories and talk about problems that way, as if you ever met a category who was pressured into an abortion, or saw a category turn out at the confessional after thirty years away. “Just the other day I was at the grocery store, and I met the nicest category in the check-out line,” said no one ever.

There are only persons. Children are not begotten and borne by some vague generic entity; each one arrives in this world by the cooperation of a specific man and woman.

We never, ever talk about specific persons. We treat specific people as aberrations. “Well, yes, my daughter Madison isn’t going to church right now, but that’s because…” and we wave it away. Madison’s the exception. She’s been excused from the category, on account of how we actually know her. (emphasis mine)

I don’t think it’s just Catholics, though: I think it’s human beings. I know I’ve slipped into it. Everyone has. You form a conception of a “type”—liberals, conservatives, feminists, traditionalists, southerners, intellectuals, teenagers…

Understand, I’m not talking about bigotry. I’m talking about benevolently “lumping people into broad categories” because you’re trying to help them more efficiently. With billions of people to consider, if you’re trying to get some of them to do something, or think something, or approve of something, and you want to know what will appeal to them, you have to treat them as a lump. Don’t you? Sure, it would be nice to approach each one as a unique creature, an unrepeatable thought straight from the mind of God, with certain gifts, strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, wounds, soft spots—but who has that kind of time?

And then I think of some of the most dramatically effective people out there: Mother Teresa, Pope Francis. They both make a big point of engaging people one on one, and encouraging others to do the same. 

Jen's post reminded me, too, of a scene in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. Mark Studduck, a mostly well-meaning but disastrously weak and unsubstantial man, is touring a village slated for destruction by the totalitarian organization he's gotten himself entangled with. 

They walked about that village for two hours and saw with their own eyes all the abuses and anachronisms they came to destroy. They saw the recalcitrant and backward labourer and heard his views on the weather. They met the wastefully supported pauper in the person of an old man shuffling across the courtyard of the almshouses to fill a kettle, and the elderly rentier (to make matters worse, she had a fat old dog with her) in earnest conversation with the postman. 

Against his better judgment, Mark is charmed by the human warmth so glaringly absent in his fellow sociologists at the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). But:

All this did not in the least influence his sociological could not have done so, for his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things that he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes" and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

It seems to me that maybe Pope Francis and Mother Teresa are on to something.

As sensible as it seems at first glance, lumping people into groups is an injustice that distorts our vision. We can't see that the objects of our benevolence are also subjects. And the lumping process doesn’t even deliver on the efficiency it promises.

Because in the end, there are only persons.

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A while back I wrote a post called Love is unconditional; Relationships have terms. I had noticed how often "unconditional love" gets invoked to put pressure on the victims of abuse and to protect wrong-doers from having to face the reality of what they've done. It's perverse.

Preparing for a Theology on Tap talk I'm to give next week, I've been re-reading The Way to Christ, a series of retreat talks Karol Wojtyla gave young adults in Poland in the 1960's and 70's. A passage in it reminded me of that post [my emphasis].

“Every one who acknowledges me before men”— before men—“ I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” ( Matthew 10: 32 ; cf. Luke 12: 8 ). He did not say this as a stern judge, but from his position as Christ, thinking of the necessary condition of our response to God and choice of God.

God's love for us is absolute and unwavering, but if we want to live in union with Him, there are conditions involved. We have to respond to Him; we have to acknowledge Him; we have to amend our lives...

The same is true in human relationships. If we want to keep them, we have to abide by the terms that go with them.

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Sartre once said very truly, "In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team."

It's how I've come to feel about parenthood and moral formation. All my ideas about teaching right and wrong are complicated by the presence of other persons with free will.

It's not just that I can't force others to do what I think they should, but that if I tried they wouldn't be making properly moral choices at all, since moral choices spring from a fully free relation to the good.

Even more, if I tried to force them I'd be acting morally badly in the moment of urging moral goodness on them, which is messed up.

I wish I had understood this sooner in life.

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I've heard a lot of sad news this week. A friend's mother is dying. Another friend's sister in law has just discovered breast cancer. And then there are the appalling headlines—the violence in the world, the mendacity and moral insanity of our political and cultural elites, atheism on the rise, misery all around, things falling apart. 

I see and feel everywhere the ordinary pain of alienation, brokenness and loss, stress and struggle, depression and disability, tension and miscommunication. I'm becoming more aware of the way sin works—the way it's communicated to successive generations. 

Sometimes the awfulness is overwhelming.

Then I think on these lines, which I first heard many years ago in (I think) a talk by Tom Howard: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

I want to forward them to my friend, because they're so comforting. But, not knowing their origin, I hesitate. Maybe they're nothing better than naive optimism, out of touch with the reality of evil. So I google and learn that they are words spoken by Jesus in a vision to the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, when she questioned him about sin. Why had God allowed it into the world where it would wreak so much unspeakable harm?

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

“These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”

The theme is echoed in the Magnificat readings and prayers for Friday.

Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.

And then this, from Isaiah:

I will heal them and lead them; I will give full comfort to them and to those who mourn for them. I the Creator, who gave them life.

The antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah was from John.

You also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and/or hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.

Pain and suffering belong to our lot in this world, and yet, we live in the deep assurance that "all shall be well." 

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In keeping with our outrageously inefficient lifestyle, this month the Torreses travelled some 800 miles to Warner, NH, to hear a talk by Dr. Ralph Martin of our home parish in Ann Arbor. (Actually the trip made some sense, since our son was graduating from Northeast Catholic College in Warner, and Ralph just happened to be the commencement speaker.)

My ears perked up early on. Ralph spoke of “the language of personal decision” which the Church has been using so insistently lately--especially since the pontificate of St. John Paul II.

“What does that sound like?” he inquired. “What does it remind you of?”

To some, he suggested, it might be reminiscent of Billy Graham, the world-famous 20th-century Protestant evangelist

After all, for a long time the Evangelicals seemed to have cornered the market on this kind of talk, with their insistence on the way a person's eternal destiny hinged on “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

There are problems with the formulation, of course--like the way it ignores the corporate aspect of the Church, and the fuzziness about exactly what "personal" might mean. But there’s a lot that's worth unpacking in such language, as I’ve written here. 

Why is personal decision so important all of a sudden? For one thing, the times when a practicing Christian could cozily blend into the woodwork are fast departing.

In the days that are coming, Ralph pointed out, it will be hard to hang on if there’s been no personal decision on your part. You sure don’t "drift into the Kingdom of God by going along with the culture.” One way or another, “Who do you say that I am?” will be addressed to each of us, and there won't be any room left for what you might call unintentional discipleship.  “The Kingdom of God suffers violence,” says Matthew in his Gospel, “and the violent bear it away.”

This is a mysterious verse, and Ralph offered a new (to me) interpretation. It could mean “the violence of conversion.” Real conversion—even if it takes a gradual, undramatic form in a particular person’s life--doesn’t just happen to you without your say-so.

The language of personal decision comes up in the matter of mercy, too. The Year of Mercy is coming up, the time of mercy is now, as John Paul and Sister Faustina kept saying. But even something as gentle and kindly as mercy requires a personal response. “Every time Jesus extends mercy, He asks for a response of faith, repentance, conversion,” Ralph pointed out. 

Of course, persons have been making decisions for as long as there have been persons. But there's been a tendency to downplay their importance, or even confuse an insistence on legitimate personal autonomy with arrogance or stubbornness, or with a relativistic mushy-mindedness.

Alice von Hildebrand makes a key distinction that’s stuck with me all these years: between passivity and receptivity. The human person is a really odd creature: gifted with freedom and self-possession, the capacity to act in his own name. And yet his most significant actions involve being receptive to God—not passive, but receptive.

There’s a balancing act here that I don’t fully understand, and it’s at the heart of personalism. To take our own subjectivity seriously, to be the protagonists, and not the spectators, of our own lives, we have to really act, really decide. The formerly prevalent way of talking—what you could call a “language of instrumentality”—included a lot of references to being God's “tools” or “instruments,” about being “molded” into His image. There was truth to that, too--I'm not setting myself up as wiser than all the saints and theologians who've talked that way over the millennia. The potter and the clay is straight out of Scripture.

But it can be very misleading, blurring the distinction between person and thing, subject and object, free being and machine. Katie has talked about this (and sparked a lively discussion) in her post entitled “Our decisions belong to us; we are responsible for them.”

So you don’t have to be Billy Graham to speak the language of personal decision. But then, the point is not what kind of language we speak, but what kind of persons we are.

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